Theater Around the Bay: Elizabeth Gjelten and Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

The Pint-Sized Plays have one more performance, on Monday the 29th. We continue our series of interviews with the 2016 Pint-Sized folks by speaking to writer Elizabeth “Liz” Gjelten and director Jimmy Moore of “Don’t I Know You?”

“Don’t I Know You?” takes place in a dive bar frequented by expats from an unnamed, war-torn country. A conversation that begins with the cliched old pick-up line “Don’t I know you?” eventually takes a darker turn as the characters’ past actions come back to haunt them. The play features actors Daphne Dorman, Sarah Leight, and Alexander Marr.

Gjelten

Playwright Liz Gjelten is new to Pint-Sized this year.

How did you get involved with Pint-Sized this year? 

Liz: I saw Marissa Skudlarek’s post about it on the “Yeah, I Said Feminist” Facebook group, especially noting that she wanted submissions from women playwrights with interesting roles for women. I’d had this idea knocking around in my head, and the bar setting gave me the impetus to see it out.

Jimmy: I heard about it after directing a short play for Theater Pub’s On the Spot in March, which I was welcomed to by Stuart Bousel! (Aren’t we all?)

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Liz: Creating a full life for the characters in a brief period of time. Also, avoiding the temptation to squeeze too much in.

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Liz: The chance to see something through from idea to completion in something less than two years! Also, the chance to play with form and ideas.

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Jimmy: I love the collaboration between writer, director and actors as we move ink on paper to bodies in space with real stories.

What’s been most troublesome?

Jimmy: Nothing to speak of.

Who or what are your biggest artistic influences?

Liz: The poet Diane di Prima. So many playwrights, but especially Suzan Lori-Parks, Naomi Wallace, Adrienne Kennedy, Erik Ehn, Caryl Churchill.

Jimmy Moore

Jimmy Moore returns to Theater Pub after directing for us in March.

Who’s your secret Bay Area actor crush? That is… what actor would you love a chance to work with?

Jimmy: Too new to the scene to have one other than…that guy with the eyes.

If you could cast a celebrity in your Pint-Sized Play, who would it be and why?

Liz: Sorry, I have a weird mental block about celebrities: They look familiar, but I almost never can remember who they are.

Jimmy: Angelina Jolie cause we have a kickass fight sequence.

What other projects are you working on and/or what’s next for you?

Liz: I’ve got two full-lengths in later stages of drafting: One about the difficulties of cross-cultural marriage and the after-effects of torture on both the former detainee and the whole family, and a dark comedy set in 1967 about a pastor’s wife who kills her husband. Next up: A site-specific piece about people living in supportive housing in the Tenderloin.

Jimmy: I produce and direct a project called Drunk Drag Broadway. We take an entire Broadway musical and give it the “Drunk History” treatment in drag along with live musical performances boiled down to 30-45 minutes. Our next production will be at SF Oasis in December. We have already produced “Wicked-ish” and “Beauty Is a Beast.”

What upcoming shows or events in the Bay Area theater scene are you most excited about?

Liz: Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment at Crowded Fire this coming September. She’s always surprising and brilliant. And I know this is a ways away, but I’m super excited about seeing Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT next spring. It’s a rare and wonderful occurrence to have a Lepage piece staged in San Francisco.

Jimmy: Disastrous at SF Oasis! D’Arcy Drollinger is brilliant and hilarious.

What’s your favorite beer?

Liz: Any good IPA with fresh ginger juice added (I’ve been known to bring it to bars in a baggie).

Jimmy: The orange ones…. cause I don’t like beer much. 🙂

Remember, you have one more chance to see “Don’t I Know You?” and the rest of the 2016 Pint-Sized Plays! Monday, August 29, at 8 PM at PianoFight.

 

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The Real World- Theater Edition: An Interview With Christopher Chen

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews one of San Francisco’s notable playwrights, Christopher Chen.

I was lucky enough to see one of Christopher Chen’s staged readings a couple of years ago and remember thinking, “Whoa, I didn’t know you could do that in plays?!” Christopher has this great style, which he describes as having “a maximalist approach.” He’s definitely another writer who inspires me to explore and play with form and theatricality in my own writing, while still focusing on the topic or issue or idea that the play was responding to in the first place.

I’d been wanting to chat with Christopher for some time about playwriting, his style, and his upcoming projects. And as it turned out, we were able to connect and talk about Home Invasion, which is 6NewPlays’ first production.

What follows is the interview I had with Christopher Chen about his work.

Christopher Chen

Christopher Chen

Barbara: How did you get into writing plays? And tell me about your writing style?

Christopher: Before I landed on playwriting I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I was all over the place in terms of what kind of artist I wanted to be. In elementary school I wrote stories and made puppets; in middle school I was obsessed with movies (Malcolm X was the movie that got me; I watched five movies a week); in high school I got into novels (Virginia Woolf, Paul Bowles) and music (the minimalists, grunge). I entered college as a music major, on the music composition track. But I also wanted to be a film director so I took film classes. And I took English classes because I wanted to be a novelist or poet. Or a sociologist or psychologist. And I also took acting classes and was in Theatre Rice, an Asian American theater group that mainly did/does sketch comedy. But they also had space for drama, and I wrote my first short play with them. I wrote my first play because I wanted something to direct, and I didn’t want to direct somebody else’s work. I think I was using theater directing to scratch my film directing itch. But then I found that playwriting was actually the thing that fulfilled all my creative impulses simultaneously: It combines literature with musicality with visual spectacle. It’s also a discipline tailor-made for my introvert (with extrovert impulses) personality. I love the process… a period of introverted writing followed by organized collaboration where I can still sort of be a wallflower.

In terms of my writing, I’ll cut and paste something I’ve written for grants: “My work as a playwright deals foremost with systems of power: how they are structured, perpetuated and how they wend their way into even the most intimate psychological spaces. My primary interest is the very scope of a system’s complexity, and to capture this, I use an all-cylinders-firing approach to theater making. It is a maximalist approach that combines elements of fable with up-to-the-moment political discourse; absurdist humor with subtle naturalism; and intimate spaces with multi-media spectacle. All of these elements are situated within kaleidoscopic, shifting structures designed to continuously challenge an audience’s expectations. The idea behind these multi-faceted constructions is to reflect the complexity of the system I’m exploring.” That sounds a little pretentious, but that’s fine.

Barbara: Tell me about 6NewPlays and how Home Invasion came to be?

Christopher: 6NewPlays is Erin Bregman, Eugenie Chan, myself, Barry Eitel, Andrea Hart and Brian Thorstenson. We are a producing playwrights’ collective inspired by 13P, the New York playwrights’ collective whose whole thing was putting the production directly into the hands of the playwright. We wanted to do that too, and produce plays of ours that might be a little riskier, might be cast aside by established theater companies. We liked the idea of bypassing the whole institutional machine of theater-making that so often creates DOA products. Our plays are going to be high-quality, formally inventive, and low-cost.

Home Invasion is a surreal murder mystery that is being performed in actual private living rooms around the Bay Area. We decided to have this be our inaugural production because it was something we could pull off relatively easily and because it embodies our scrappy, nimble get-it-done ethos. Most of the budget is going to artist stipends. I was excited to take this on because I’ve been increasingly gravitating towards more subtle character-driven writing, and having actors perform in real living rooms, just feet away from the audience’s faces, allows a level of intimacy and nuance you can’t get outside of movies or TV. It’s like writing for the screen… but it’s live.

Barbara: What has your experience as a SF playwright been like?

Christopher: I’ve lost steam after the first two answers.

Barbara: What’s your take on the current theater scene?

Christopher: There’s a lot of different facets to it.

Barbara: Is there anything you would change or see an opportunity for within the scene?

Christopher: Doing Home Invasion with 6NewPlays was very inspiring for me because it really drilled home a Bay Area truism: where there’s a will there’s a way. It’s not as cut-throat here as it is in New York or Chicago, so there’s no reason NOT to gather really good people together who share your passions and instincts, and then just make theater at relatively low risk. Everyone will be glad to pitch in if everyone likes and respects each other and shares common goals. THEN THEATER WILL HAPPEN. In the group development phase of 6NewPlays we all pitched in. As a group we collaboratively tackled all practical matters: finances, grantwriting, budget-making, etc. etc. These things would be overwhelming if you were doing it all by yourself for the first time. That’s why you need a team. And then, during the artistic phase of Home Invasion, I’m once again experiencing the joys and ease of collaborating with a dedicated, passionate and professional team, all pulling together in a DIY way. Where there’s a will there’s a way. I was able to snag my dream director: Matthew Graham Smith, and my dream cast: Kat Zdan, Lisa Anne Porter, Matthew Hannon. And they’re going to go into private living rooms, big and small, for audience sizes ranging from 15-40, and put on a full-length play. I’m losing sight of the original question, but the bottom line is: In this community there’s room to make your own opportunity.

Barbara: What can we expect from Home Invasion?

Christopher: I was originally inspired by Dial M For Murder. ONE OF THE BEST MOVIES EVER AND IT ONLY TAKES PLACE IN ONE ROOM. (Mostly.) I was also inspired by The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo, and The Twilight Zone. The play goes into some strange places. I was inspired by a mysterious book my story collaborator Hannah Birch Carl found at Urban Ore. This mysterious book was a big inspiration.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Home Invasion, running April 16-30th in various Bay Area living rooms.

Barbara: Any advice for people who would like to do what you do?

Christopher: Gather good people together and just make the work. Don’t listen to too much feedback– double down on your own instincts. In fact, push your instincts to their logical conclusions. Explore many other artistic influences other than theater. If you’re starting out in this community, start by saying yes to everything. Before I gained any traction as a playwright I worked box office and house managed and interned at the Magic Theatre, I acted at Impact Theatre (Horatio) and Shotgun Players (a tiny tiny role in a Marcus Gardley world premiere!), and did all kinds of staged readings and development workshops.

Barbara: Any projects coming up you can talk about?

Christopher: I am working on commissions with A.C.T., Crowded Fire, S.F. Playhouse and O.S.F. (that controversial Play On! translation project— I’m doing Antony and Cleopatra). My play Caught will be at Shotgun Players this Fall, along with productions in Seattle, Chicago and New York.

Barbara: Any plugs for your own work or friends’ work?

Christopher: I wish I’d gotten tickets to Peter Nachtrieb’s House Tour, but it’s all sold out.

For more on Christopher Chen, check out his website at http://www.christopherchen.org. Home Invasion runs April 16-30 at selected living rooms across the Bay Area, including a barebones performance at The Flight Deck in Oakland in collaboration with Just Theater. For more info, go here.

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: Get the Fuck off the Couch

Claire Rice channel surfs theatre listings so you don’t have to.

What does a typical night of theatre look like in the Bay Area? It’s hard to say. Different parts of the season will have different shows. So I’ve decided to start a new series where I pick a Friday night and really look at the show listings to see what’s playing. Maybe by the end of the season we’ll have a picture of the Bay Area Theatre scene.

To start with I picked September 19th, 2014 as my “any given Friday”. I picked this date because I figured the big houses would have just started their first shows of the season, the Burning Man crowd would be back and sober and still excited about art, and it would be the night most everyone would realize that summer is ending and the long slow slog to the holidays is about to begin. What better time to see theatre?

What did I find?

All in all there are over 50 shows to see and there is something out there for everyone. And, yes, it is a diverse field. No, it’s not nearly as diverse as you would like. All the usual minorities are still minorities this season so far. But, this isn’t a full picture of the Bay Area theatrical climate! And just like the weather there are micro climates where some theatrical forms thrive and others wither on the vine.

Community Leaders are Leading the Way – To HAPPY TOWN!

American Conservatory Theatre is bringing back perennial favorite Bill Irwin in “Old Hats”, a show that has old fashioned clowning befuddled by new fangled technology. On the other side of the bay it is all about legs and singing at Berkeley Rep who is bringing in Knee High founder Emma Rice and a delightful woman named Meow Meow. Both companies seem to be saying with their season openers that they want you to be happy damn it! Whimsically, giddily, cavity educing happy!

Fuck “with music” I want MUSICAL!

You got it! Well, not in San Francisco…but totally! SHN has “Motown: The Musical!” and while I feel that the story of Motown is musical worthy…really I think you can just go home and just get the original songs and rock out. What you can’t get off iTunes is “Beach Blanket Babylon” which is that show you saw that one time your Aunt came to visit. You could also take your chances with “Foodies: The Musical!” brought to you buy the same guy who wrote “Shopping: The Musical!”. (Honestly, I don’t even need to be sarcastic.) But if you find yourself on September 19 really really needing a musical then get yourself a Zip Car and take your pick between “Company”, “Gypsy”, “Big Fish”, “The Addams Family”, “Funny Girl”, “Life Could Be a Dream” and “The Great American Trailer Park Musical”. They are all out there if you are brave, true of heart, and have access to a car. Well, Town Hall Theatre (playing “Company”) and Center Repertory Theatre (playing “Life Could Be a Dream”) are all about ten minutes from a BART station. Wait. What am I talking about? Everyone reading this is probably an artist of some kind so you probably already live away from or are considering moving out of San Francisco, Berkeley or Oakland. In which case, can I have a ride? “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” looks great!

I Want a Return to the Way Theatre Should Be

Then let’s go with traditional, Theatre Appreciation 101 plays. You need an experience where you already know the play, you probably saw the movie, and you would like to sink in for an entertaining evening of the familiar. Great. The Shelton Theatre is putting on “Noises Off” (Though, I literally don’t know HOW. The Shelton stage is TINY!) Marin Shakespeare outlasts all the other summer Shakespeare with “Romeo and Juliet”. Around the Bay you can see performances of “The Glass Menagerie”, “All My Sons”, “Wait until Dark”, “Iceman Commeth” “Fox on the Fairway” and “Bell, Book and Candle”. If there were a channel like Turner Movie Classics for plays, these plays would be on it ALL THE TIME. These plays will never be irrelevant, and they will stick around to remind you of that fact forever.

How about what’s HOT right now?

Excellent. Well chosen. Because COCK is hot right now. There’s “Cock” (about two men fighting like cocks) at NCTC and Impact Theatre has “The Year of the Rooster” (about actual cock fighting). I would also like to point out that there is a film screening tribute to The Cockettes at the de Young Museum on the 19th. If you are tired of cock move out beyond The City for your fill of lady playwrights including “Art” at City Lights, “Wonder of the World” at Douglas Morrison, “The New Electric Ballroom” at Shotgun Players, and “Rapture Blister Burn” at Aurora.” These three plays don’t fit in with my cock humor, but you should also check out SF Playhouse who is putting on a full production of their award winning “Ideation”, “Slaughter House Five” at Custom Made which was first seen at Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has brought audiences to tears all over the country and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” will be at the newly built Flight Deck in Oakland.

I want Brand New! I want to say “I Saw It First”

Sure. Ok. Good news. San Francisco prides itself on generating new works. Theatre First has rising star Lauren Gunderson’s play “Fire Work” and Chris Chen continues his creative relationship with Crowded Fire for “Late Wedding”. The Marsh has new solo performances of Marga Gomez’s “Love Birds” and Dan Hoyle’s “Each and Every Thing”. The Magic Theatre bring us “Bad Jews.” (This company is always good for brand new plays with titles you aren’t sure you want to put in emails.) Renegade Theatre Experiment will bring us “Perishable: Keep Refrigerated”. September also has an Improv Festival for you! At BATS, the Eureka, Stage Werx and other venues are improv acts that will make you say “I can’t believe that wasn’t scripted!” Well, it wasn’t and that’s why you went. But if you DO want scripted theatre you should go to the EXIT for Fringe Festival. If you haven’t binged on fringe you haven’t lived. If you are into binging on theatre, check out “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” where they try to perform thirty plays in sixty minutes.

Actually, I want an EVENT

Sure. I hear that audiences all over don’t want just “theatre” they want attending to be an “event”. For companies that take the process if creation very seriously check out Mugwumpin who will present “Blockbuster Season” and We Players who will take on an adaptation of King Leer with “King Fool.” For a traditionally untraditional experience Pear Avenue is playing “House” and “Garden” by Alan Ayckbourn, in which both plays are performed simultaneously using the same actors. You’ll have to go back a different evening to see how the other half of the play went. The Costume Shop is showing “The Haze”, which is a solo show that has come and gone before under different names, but the event that is built around the show is really about raising awareness of how crime labs deal with rape kits. Dragon Productions presents “Arc:hive Presents A Moment (Un)bound”. I don’t know what it’s about, but it has to be eventful if there is so much crazy punctuation in the title.

How are Ticket Prices?

If you plan ahead (now) you can see any of these shows for under $50 a ticket. The average is $30, but most can be seen for much less if you work at it.

Promo Lines

I’ve always felt the first sentence you use to promote your show is the most important sentence. Here are some of my favorite first sentences:

“What would you do if a time portal opened up inside your refrigerator?”

“In this revival of the great Tennessee Williams classic… Tom Wingfield is a homeless man living under a fire escape in modern-day St. Louis.”

“The following is from WikiPedia referencing the film of the same name.”

“What would you pay for a white painting?”

“Don’t miss the latest installment in this playwright’s meteoric rise to national prominence.”

“Star-crossed lovers and hot, sweaty street fighting make for an evening of romance, poetry, passion and excitement.”

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Did I Miss Something?

I’m sure I did. Tell me about your show in the comments section.

The Point?

You have something to do on September 19. Get the fuck off the couch and go see theatre. (Of course, you might also be in one of these shows or rehearsing for one coming up. More on that next week.)